Bearing Witness to Climate Change April 2022

In excellent news, for the first time ever wind and solar energy was reported to have generated more than 10% of total global electricity in 2021. Over 50 countries now get more than 10% of their electricity from solar and wind sources, which grew 23% and 14% respectively last year. Unfortunately, power from burning coal also rose last year by an alarming 9%.

Another green energy milestone to celebrate in the US; wind power produced more electricity during the month of March 2022 than coal and nuclear combined. On one day alone in March, clean wind energy was responsible for over 2,000 GW, or nearly 20%, surpassing all other sources except for natural gas.

The latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the climate warns that time is running out to avert a climate catastrophe. Over 250 scientists from 65 countries around the world contributed to the 3,000-plus page report. The world is on track to burn through the remaining carbon budget, about 500 gigatons which is10 years at our current rate, that would keep temperatures from rising above 2.7 degrees F. Unless current trends are arrested this decade, temps are projected to rise nearly 6 degrees F above preindustrial times. GHG emissions continue to rise across the world, although at a slower pace of 1.3% per year over the last decade after rising over 2% annually in the previous decade. To halt global warming, scientists say that emissions must not increase any further but start to decline some 40% by 2030 and become net zero by 2050.

The good news in the IPCC report is that we have more green technologies that are available right now to slow climate change and decarbonize the global economy. The authors state we know what we need to do, when we need to do it, and how we can do it. But we are lacking the political courage and sense of urgency. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres once again proclaimed we are in a climate emergency and that the report is a file of shame and empty pledges that have not been met.

The report continues to call for putting a price on carbon, saying it is an effective tool for reducing carbon emissions and that there is abundant evidence that it works. But the report goes on to say that revenues earned from taxing carbon should be paid back out as dividends to the public. This will avoid harming low-income to populations who are most vulnerable to climate change and the economic transition and disruptions to a green economy.

In what would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, the American Petroleum Institute is said to have drafted a proposal urging Congress to adopt a carbon tax.

Last year, methane measured in the atmosphere increased to another record level, up to 17 ppb from 15.3 in 2020. While a third of human-generated methane comes from oil and gas, scientists are unsure what is driving the increase.  Methane stays in the atmosphere for far less time than carbon dioxide, but it is much more effective at trapping heat.

The past month of March saw more tornadoes reported in the US, over 200, than any previous March on record. This record was broken for the second year in a row. Tornado season in the US is starting earlier in the year with more severe storms. Regions most impacted by damage have also moved from the great plains to the southeast.

Due in part to the increase in extreme weather events, the number and duration of power outages in the US has doubled over the past two decades. No part of the year or the country has been spared from the risk of an electricity loss. An aging energy grid infrastructure is more vulnerable to severe weather events caused by climate change. Some policy experts are worried if the national grid, built originally for centralized fossil fuel plants, can keep pace with the demands put on it due to a larger geographic distribution of both renewables generation sites and users.

Another study, this time from Science Advances, predicts that the US West will suffer more droughts, wildfires, and flash flooding in the coming years.  During 2021 the far west experienced another year of record fires with reduced precipitation. Snowpacks in western mountain ranges were also below average this past winter, continuing a trend of the last fifty years.

A large southern California water district has for the first time declared a water emergency to compel water providers, reservoirs, and users to implement emergency conservation measures. It will limit water usage to essential-only activities for nearly 20 million residents. Nearly all of the state continues in an extreme drought where the first three months of this year were the driest on record for portions of the state.

Droughts are also impacting the southern hemisphere. Chile is experiencing a mega-drought now in its 13th year where water availability has decreased by nearly one-half. As a result, water is now being rationed in Santiago, a city of over 6 million.

The rise of gas prices, due in large part to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has caused President Biden to release up to 180 million barrels of oil from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the largest ever released.  This is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing to fight climate change.

On the other hand, the Biden administration released the strongest fuel economy rules to date that will raise the average performance to 40 mpg by 2026. The current standard is 28 mpg which is set to increase 8-10% over the next 3 model years.

The sale of electric vehicles in the US rose a staggering 76% during the first quarter of the year to nearly double their market share to 5% of all vehicles. Nearly half of these sales were from just one company, Tesla.

Environmental groups along with 16 state governments across the US have sued the Postal Service to block its purchase of 165,000 gasoline fueled mail-delivery vehicles instead of electric powered.  The USPS currently operates nearly a quarter million vehicles in its fleet that are kept in-service for decades.

In another controversial announcement, the US EPA announced it would approve the sale of gas with 15% ethanol, E15, during the upcoming summer months. The intent is to help lower fuel costs that have risen largely due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yet, some public policy experts advise E15 may not be all that green when the total carbon footprint of producing crops, mostly corn, for petrol is included.

More social media companies are banning posts and ads that deny climate change and the role of humans in creating it. Pinterest joins Google and others that will prohibit posts and ads that deny the existence, cause, and impact of climate change.

Over $80B was invested into climate tech during a 12-month period in 20/21. A fund, Voyager Ventures, just raised $100M to back startups in the US and Europe that are working to decarbonize transportation, energy, food, and material production.

Some of the world’s largest companies and foundations, including Alphabet, Stripe, Meta Platforms, and Gates Foundation, have or will be investing over $1B that will be used to fund the development of carbon offsets from tech startups that promise to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

In some parts of the warming US, birds are nesting a month earlier than they did a century ago. While some bird species seem to be adapting to climate change, ornithologists are worried that others will suffer because the plants and insects they feed on are out of synch.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to disrupt world oil and gas markets. The European Union has agreed to ban the import of Russian coal, which amounts to nearly half of all coal imported by Europe. As the atrocities committed by Russian forces grow, there is more support for the EU banning oil and gas imports as well. Russian provides about 40% of the natural gas used in the EU and 25% of oil.

Later in the month, Russia made the decision for two NATO countries, Poland and Bulgaria, when it suspended their natural gas shipments. Russian threatened to do the same for the rest of Europe, which may in the long run be good news for the planet. Germany responds by saying it will no longer oppose an EU ban on Russian gas.

As the number and size of large-scale solar energy facilities grows across the US, some communities are objecting to the land required for the solar farms. Solar currently makes up just 3% of the country’s total electricity supply but is expected to grow to 45% by 2050. To support that growth, a land area the size of the state of Massachusetts will be needed. And much of that will be closer to population centers than existing energy projects. Like many things in America, the controversy is mostly along partisan lines with conservative Republicans voicing the most opposition.

India has experienced a record heat wave for the month of April across the populous northwest portion of the country. Summer heat has arrived early as temperatures exceeded 110 degrees F, the hottest reported in 122 years.

The pledges of becoming net-zero made by large corporations around the world are largely not being realized. A report from the New Climate Institute and Carbon Market Watch found that only 3 out of 25 companies they examined were making enough progress for a 2050 net zero emissions goal.  The authors said there was not adequate transparency and that the value of carbon offsets was being exaggerated.

It’s becoming more obvious that we will not be able to slow carbon emissions fast enough, so the world must resort to new technologies that pull carbon out of the air then sequester it. Especially given that global energy demands will increase by nearly 50% by 2050 due to growth in population and economies around the world. The IPCC says that as much as 6 billion tons will need to be removed annually by 2050, which is about 10% of what we currently inject into the air.

China, the world’s largest emitter of GHG, consumes about half of the world’s total coal production and the rate is still increasing with no end in sight. There are at least five new coal-fired power plants under construction in China, even though the country has announced it will stop building and funding new coal power plants abroad.  President Xi has said that China’s dependency on coal is unlikely to change in the short term, even though the country is building the largest solar and wind energy facilities in the world.

Pumped storage hydroelectric is being promoted as the world’s largest batteries that provide alternative to utility scale banks of lithium-based batteries. Over 50 such hydroelectric facilities are currently being constructed around the world. The attractiveness of pumped hydroelectric is that a reservoir of potential energy can be pumped full of water using renewable energy during times of ample wind and solar power. Then when electricity demands increase, the water once released powers conventional turbine generators.  However, some environmentalists are concerned with the damage done to landscapes, habitats, and water sources, though they admit the alternatives of mineral mining for conventional batteries is equally distressing.

The United Nations Office of Disaster Risk says that catastrophic disasters will increase around the world by 60% over this decade to more than one per day.  Disasters now result in costs of more than $150B each year.

A new study from Princeton University published in the journal Science warns that up to a third of all marine animals could perish in a mass extinction event due to climate change. Rising ocean temperatures, reduced oxygen levels, increased acidity, and habitat degradation will be to blame.

A 2021 survey found that nearly half of the respondents said climate anxiety affected their lives and were worried that the planet was doomed. Ever so tragically, on Earth Day this year, a 50-year-old man from Colorado set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court. Family members said it was a protest in the name of climate change. I too feel this man’s climate grief, and yes at times despair, that more is not being done to save the planet and other humans who will suffer from the climate emergency. But I remain hopeful that with more and more of us around the world bearing witness, as a form of our own therapy to channel despair into action, humanity will awaken to the threat and act with the sense of urgency it deserves.

Featured image is a from the World Economic Forum

%d bloggers like this: